Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The US midterms: will Obama be too late for the Tea Party?

On Thursday 4 November, President Barack Obama will find himself exactly halfway through his first, and possibly his only term in office. In today's election, the results of which will start to trickle through shortly, 435 seats of the House of Representatives, and 37 in the Senate will be up for grabs.

Regardless of the result, Obama should then be able to determine a strategy in which he can survive the rest of his presidency and possibly run again in 2012. And, whether the Republicans can cause an electoral upset not seen on a level since the 1970s remains to be seen.

The first big question is around the impact of the Tea Party, so far an unknown quantity, which has successfully injected a new form of anti-politics into public life. Their success or failure will be a signal of the extent of an hitherto repressed anti-Obama feeling – undoubtedly underpinned by a subliminal racism - which was easily overwhelmed by the media hype around his election in 2008. Since then, hopes of change have been raised and dashed, the American electorate is more insecure than at any time in its history and a strong anti-state feeling has pervaded throughout politics on both the left and right.

The second big question asks whether the Democrats have been able to create an American tale that expresses the hopes and dreams of ordinary citizens in 2010. With unemployment stubbornly lingering at nearly 10% and foreclosures affecting one in every 371 households in September, it's not just about improving your lot, it's about surviving.

A Republican landslide would be a tragedy for America at a time when it needs state intervention more urgently than ever. Political historians point to how Bill Clinton successfully fought off challenges from a Republican dominated Congress in the 1990s – but Obama has even less experience in the sort of political street-fighting skills you need when your legislature doesn't naturally swing your way. And although Clinton presided over a period of healthy growth and economic stability, he also produced law which proved a disappointment to liberals – an example of which includes the pernicious and regressive 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy excluding lesbian and gay people from the armed forces, which Obama will need to fight hard to retract. The political implications for the next two years could see Obama being forced to compromise and water down further his grand designs to prevent the constant threat of gridlock in Congress, alienating those who put him in the White House.

American politics is having one of its periodic bi-polar episodes, the cure for which in many conservatives' eyes is Sarah Palin, a sort of George W Bush in drag. She will speak for the comfort zone of mid-western, small town politics but where she has seemingly boundless ambition and small-town charm by the RV-load, she has neither the nuance, the political skills or the oratory to lead America away from its own self-destruction. The next few days will be very telling indeed.

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